Vietnam Veterans of America
Christmas was hot, humid, and dusty with incoming mortars and sweating soldiers. But we were not going to allow such details to interfere with celebrations.
As a way of thanking U.S. military personnel for their magnificent help, the Vietnamese staff invited them to spend Christmas day with us at the Centre. Christmas is about children, after all, and we certainly had plenty of them.
The soldiers were very enthusiastic and set about planning the day with gusto. Many had young children back home, and this might lessen their homesickness. It was terribly important to them to make this Christmas happen, and preparations became their obsession. The Centre became a hive of activity. Some Army nurses taught the children how to make brightly colored paper chains, and the soldiers shared with them Christmas cards from back home.
Soon the wards were festooned with home-made decorations: drawings of Bambi and other Disney characters, as well as little angels with sparkly halos. A few young men were detailed to go to market and bring back girl gifts and boy gifts, which they then wrapped. The children were goggle-eyed at all of this, not too sure what was going on, but having the best time fixing up the place.
Not to be outdone by the soldiers, the airmen appeared with a real Christmas tree. They had flown up to Dalat, lopped off the tops
Now all we needed was Santa Claus.
Bill was a crusty old sergeant who sometimes drifted into the Centre. A veteran of the Korean War and a heavy drinker, he was trying to keep body and soul together till he went home to retirement. On his best days he looked like W.C. Fields on a bad day. Bill was a man of few words, but he used to come round and visit with the kids in his own quiet way.
He was thrilled to be Santa Claus. We found some bright red, shiny material in the local market and, with great solemnity, we measured Bill for his costume. Xuong, one of the nurse aides who was a whiz at tailoring, excitedly ran up a suit for Santa. Great discussions took place about the whiskers. Eventually a helicopter pilot from Evansville, Illinois, decided his creative skills could stretch to producing a fluffy white beard.
The plan was that Santa would arrive in the back of an army Jeep, carrying a sackful of gifts. Due to security restrictions, time was short because our guests had to be back at their bases by early afternoon. So, nothing for it, we would have our Christmas get-together at the hottest part of the day.
As our guests arrived, each was “issued” a baby or a child to look after for the day. They took care of nappies, food, and so on for the period they were there. There is something indescribably touching about a teenage soldier bottle-feeding a baby or feeding a blind child. All we had to do was tend the more seriously ill children and keep an eye on the episodes of sheer panic as young men from Honolulu, Flagstaff, or Missoula grappled with full nappies and regurgitating babies.
Cold drinks and even some turkey had been provided by the military,and Tinh, our trusty cook, produced colorful platters of stir-fried vegetables and grilled fish caught by local fishermen. With the meal ready, soldiers, nuns, nurses, and children waited for Santa to arrive. And waited. The allotted time came—and went.
Disappointment was setting in when the whomp-whomp of a chopperapproached. Within minutes it was hovering about fifteen feet above the compound. Little ones were petrified and ran for cover under beds and tables laden with fruit, food, and drink. They knew that choppers could mean trouble.
Dust choked us. Flowers were blasted out of the dry earth, saplings bowed to the ground. Cu, our security guard, lost his pith helmet in the downdraught and was deeply miffed.
Then, from the chopper a rope ladder snaked its way to the ground. Santa’s rear end appeared and, slowly, the swaying, inebriated man slid down the ladder. His beard, a riot of cotton balls and paste, completely obliterated most of his face. In the middle of a lusty ‘Ho Ho Ho!’ Bill slipped and crashed to the ground. I thought, “Oh my God, we’ve killed Santa Claus.”
GIs carried the now inert figure into one of the dorms and laid him across two of the small beds, where he slept off the effects with many pairs of young eyes anxiously watching over him.
The sack of scattered parcels was rescued, the gifts were opened, and the hilarity continued. The combs, mirrors, and ribbons were pretty; the crayons, paints, and exercise books were brilliant. The bags of rubber bands, from which the boys made all sorts of extraordinary things, were a stroke of genius. Peanut brittle, a staple of the soldier’s care package, was supplied in great tooth-rotting slabs.
Later, Santa enjoyed copious amounts of good, strong black coffee prepared by Tinh, and then opened his own gift, shyly handed to him by one of the children in the quiet room where he was recovering.
I thought he could cope better in the quiet of a room alone, rather than in the middle of the more raucous, crowded celebrations, the fear of which had maybe scared this lonely man in the first place.
He was thrilled with his gift: a neck chain from which hung a bamboo carving.
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